Marine Conservation Biology (Palau)

Day 3 – Conservation, Management, and Sustainable Use of Marine Resources in Palau
by -- January 13th, 2014

Thursday, 9 January 2013

Unfortunately, this morning we were greeted by more rain.  Luckily, we had a day of indoor interviews on the agenda.  First, we spoke with Wayne Andrew, a member of the Helen Reef Management Board, about efforts to preserve Helen Reef.  Helen Reef is an atoll approximately 300 miles south of the main islands of Palau and is considered a hotspot for biodiversity, particularly as a haven for giant clams and sea turtles.  Helen Reef was traditionally a rich fishing ground for a very small and isolated community on the island of Hatahobei (often called Tobi).  The Tobian people have traditionally depended heavily upon the marine resources that thrive at Helen Reef.

Recently, though, Helen Reef has been plagued by a variety of destructive fishing activities like dynamite fishing, cyanide fishing, and poaching – particularly by foreign vessels.  In response, the Tobi community created the Helen Reef Management Board.  The mission of Helen Reef Management Board and the Tobian community is to conserve the biodiversity and natural resources of Helen Reef by eliminating destructive activities like overharvesting and poaching, as well as creating a foundation for sustainable use of Helen Reef.

The Helen Reef Management Board trains Tobians in enforcement, SCUBA diving, resource monitoring, data recording and computer skills, as well as communication skills.  Mr. Andrew and his team have also developed and cultivated key partnerships and relationships with resource management-focused entities both within Palau and the broader Micronesian region.

The Tobian community has been very successful in their conservation efforts; Helen Reef is now a protected area spanning 163 square kilometers. Mr. Andrew emphasized the essential role that the Tobian community plays in the successful conservation efforts.  Mr. Andrew asserted that without an active and involved community, conservation and management efforts are likely to fail.  The group continues their success and has recently finished a draft of a Management Plan for Helen Reef.

After a quick lunch break, we headed to the Bureau of Marine Resources to speak with Nancy Wong and Dilmei Olkeriil and learn about the traditional role that Hawksbill sea turtles play in Palauan culture.  Hawksbill shells are extremely valuable as women’s money – called toluk – and are deeply treasured in Palauan society.  Toluk are oval and made from Hawksbill shells and are traditionally exchanged by women as a form of compensation.  However, the toluk are imbued with stories of family history and special events.  Toluk is exchanged during traditional ceremonies and customs, like at the First Birth Ceremony, or as a gift for completing a task or service, and at funerals.  The value of each piece of toluk varies according to size, thickness, and color, and pattern.  Nancy Wong and Dilmay Olkeriil showed us five different pieces of toluk, each unique and extremely beautiful.

Currently, there are thousands of pieces of toluk in circulation in Palau – other very valuable pieces are kept.  However, after noticing smaller and smaller turtle shells over time, women and local leaders implemented a moratorium on Hawksbill harvesting for five years in late 2010.  They hope that the moratorium will allow Hawksbills populations to rebuild and strengthen.  These efforts to sustainably manage and conserve the Hawksbill sea turtle populations will be reviewed in 2015.  Until then, no new pieces of toluk can be created.

As it turns out, our rainy day proved perfect for stimulating excellent conservation conversations, with a particular focus on what motivates conservation efforts.

The color of this particular piece of toluk is very rare.

The color of this particular piece of toluk is very rare.

Ms. Olkeriil and Ms. Wong brought several pieces of toluk to explain the difference in size, color, thickness, and value.

Ms. Olkeriil and Ms. Wong brought several pieces of toluk to explain the difference in size, color, thickness, and value.

We learned so much from Ms. Wong and Ms. Olkeriil - Thank you for spending the afternoon with us!

We learned so much from Ms. Wong and Ms. Olkeriil – Thank you for spending the afternoon with us!

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